As the deadline for senior theses and capstone projects approaches, most students are busy typing away on their keyboards, desperate to get their final papers submitted to bCourses or Gradescope on time. But for Malia Sittler, a fourth-year Theater & Performance Studies major specializing in Costume Design, the pressure is on in a different way.
“I’ve been making and sewing things ever since I learned how,” said Sittler in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I saw things online from video games and other media that I liked, and I wanted to recreate it in real life, so I taught myself to sew.”
Like her fellow classmates specializing in costume design, Sittler worked her way up the ranks, starting in wardrobe positions responsible for laundry and costume inventory before progressing to assistant roles under the guidance of experienced costume designers. Finally this semester, she was entrusted with her very own project: designing costumes for the Theater, Dance and Performance Studies’ production of “Eurydice.”
Inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, playwright Sarah Ruhl reimagines the play through the eyes of Eurydice, who dies on her wedding day and must embark on a treacherous journey to the underworld, where she struggles to remember her past. As the sole costume designer for TDPS’ version, Sittler helped make director Peter Glazer’s carnival-inspired adaptation come to life through her wardrobe choices for the characters.
“I started off with historical research because the production was loosely set in the 1930s,” Sittler said. “(From there), I looked into period-appropriate things that would fit that (carnival) setting.”
However, research alone is not enough to make the characters come to life. Aside from making sure the costumes were historically accurate, Sittler also needed to incorporate the characters’ unique stories to help immerse audiences into the fictitious performances. A character’s personality, economic status and whether they were likely to wear more conservative clothing were all important aspects that Sittler communicated to the audience through just a few pieces of fabric.
“You have to get into the character’s mindset and figure out what they would wear,” said Sittler. “The audience should be able to read from that if you do it well enough.”
Take Eurydice, for example. The original script painted her as “a little too young and a little too in love,” so it was up to Sittler to translate these character traits into an outfit. However, the script also called for Eurydice to arrive in the underworld wearing a 1950s elopement suit — a style that, in Sittler’s opinion, was more reminiscent of a more middle-aged woman than a girl who was supposed to be on her honeymoon.
“I had to figure out a way to make her still look like she was traveling and still have that youthful vibe, so I gave her a dress instead and a little hat,” Sittler explained. “I think it came out much younger looking and more fitting.”
Besides setting the style of garment, Sittler also needed to determine the color palette. She wanted something happy and bright, while still preserving Eurydice’s traits of being more adolescent and sweet. “The first immediate idea I had was the color because I liked the soft kind of buttercup yellow,” Sittler explained. “It is a very innocent color, but it’s not as in-your-face as if I put her in a light pink or something very obviously little-girly.”
This ended up working seamlessly, as the play was ultimately set in black and white. With the only splash of color being Eurydice’s yellow dress, Sittler was able to make the protagonist truly stand out in the production.
Although Sittler also worked on the costuming of all other characters, her favorite was the Chorus of the Stones, who are instructed to be “played as though they are nasty children at a birthday party” in the original script. To marry this concept with the director’s vision of a carnival aesthetic and his desire for their entrance to spook the audience, Sittler conducted extensive research into what is inherently creepy to people.
In the end, Sittler decided to stick with black and white as the colors for the stone trio, not only to ensure they remain as supporting characters, but also to fit the setting of the underworld. Alternatively, she played with the proportions to make them look unexpected.
“For the little stone, I made everything very oversized and drapey to emphasize the smallness, but then for the big stone, I tried to make tight-fitting shorts and a bigger top half to kind of give a top-heavy look,” Sittler explained. “The loud stone I made was kind of long, weird and gangly.” All of these design choices were intended to make the characters look less like standard clowns.
For Sittler, the most difficult part of the costume design process is gathering initial ideas. “Before it’s all on paper, there’s nothing. It’s all just ideas that are floating around,” she said. “Once you have your final drafts, and you’ve shown the director and you get approval or critiques, then it gets easier from there.”
Based on her thoughtful, dedicated and elaborate costuming in “Eurydice,” it’s abundantly clear that Sittler’s meticulous design process has paid off, taking her one step nearer to successfully closing the curtain on her costume design journey at UC Berkeley.